The Gray Light of Villainy 101 Pt. 2 – Relationships

The Gray Light of Villainy 101 Pt. 2 – Relationships

A guest post by Rennie St. James

We previously discussed our villains’ relationships, both with other characters and readers.  We also mentioned making these characters as ‘flawed’ as our heroes. Let’s continue with those ideas while exploring the gray light of villainy a bit more.

I love the term ‘Mary Sue/ Marty Stu’ for those too-perfect goody-two-shoe characters.  As always, there are different interpretations for the label. Let’s just go with too-perfect, shall we?  How does that translate into a too-perfectly diabolical supervillain?

Not every villain needs to be the all-powerful polar opposite of our hero.  Remember, we are looking for the shadows in both – we are embracing the gray light of our characters instead of painting villains completely black and heroes completely light.  Also, the villain shouldn’t be a plot device that simply blocks our MC’s path. Villains should be living, breathing flesh and blood characters.

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Consider applying the same writing tools used to flesh out your hero to your villain.

  1. Interview the character.
  2. Write their backstory – writing this in first person helps me.
  3. Cast an actor into the part to help you visualize.
  4. Give the character obstacles to overcome.
  5. Allow your villain to grow.

I’m going to use a personal example without sharing too many spoilers.  We are all afraid of the murderous psychopath characters, correct? These are the serial killers, lone wolf terrorists, and monsters that creep out of the shadows to star in our greatest nightmares.  As I adore horror movies, there are many representations floating around my head at any given time. I latched onto this vague idea for one of my villains. He came across as wonderfully homicidal, but also incredibly flat and dull after all the blood was shed.  It’s hard to be terrified of a stereotype, a two-dimensional villain.

Exploring his past a bit more gave me some insight into his motivations and his idiosyncrasies.  In truth, the good similarities between him and the hero were what made him terrifying (to the hero, at least).  

Now, we’ve taken those steps and developed a real villain – someone as personal and unique as our hero.  What about his/ her motivations?

Tropes are tropes for a reason – they work.  Our villains could be power-hungry, wronged by destiny, or the injured victim from the hero’s past.  Each one serves the purpose as a base motivation. Again though, we must apply them to our specific character and plot.

[Yes, I had to work in another picture of Loki.]

One way to find our specifics is to look for the light.  We need to find the contradictions and emotional connections our villains possess.  These could be the relationships we discussed previously as those are a great way to shine the spotlight on our villains.  It could also be that our villain simply has a different view than our hero. Perhaps, the hero allowed one to die to save hundreds.  What if the one was someone of importance to the villain? There are many concrete examples of gray areas in our world that may inspire you and/ or your characters.  Environment vs businesses. Animal rights. Immigration. Who the villain often depends on your point of view. The truth may be stranger than fiction at times, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use it to inspire our fictional works.

Now, we have a human (for lack of a better word) villain with motivations and depth.  What’s next?

Such incredible villains demand an incredible plot to reveal themselves.  Who doesn’t like the cliché of the villain’s explanation of their plan to the hero (thus allowing time for the hero to save him/herself)?!  Well, actually, I don’t. It serves a purpose, but it can also come across as a lazy way to tie the plot together.

My favorite villains in books and movies are those that are right in front of us the entire time.  A literary example is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  A more pop culture reference would be Jigsaw in the first Saw movie.  The villains are people we don’t quite see as villains until the final revelation.  However, once we look back, we see all the signs are there. Picture the Sixth Sense kid staring with wide eyes and saying ‘I see villains’.  

Those villains are the characters who stick with me as a reader.

Unfortunately, most novels are about the heroes so not every single piece of information about your villain may see the light of day.  As writers though, we will write the villains differently if we see them differently. Writers have the unique ability to lead the reader without telling or dragging them along.  We can also leave them with some doubts and thoughts – maybe even enough reasonable doubt that they wouldn’t convict our villains in court of law.

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I understand these points may not sway all writers to approach villains differently.  As such, I’d like to repeat one from another Dark Lord Journal post – the better the villain, the better the hero.  If you want your hero/ heroine to shine then create a shining example of villainy to inspire him/ her to do great things.  

I would still love to hear about your villains so please feel free to comment below.  Together, I think we can bring the villains from the darkness to see at least a little gray light in our novels.

AN – I have very much enjoyed adding my two cents to The Dark Lord Journal.  Thank you for the opportunity and for reading my rambling posts. As a token of my appreciation, I’d like to offer two electronic ARCs of my upcoming novel, Azimuth (Rahki Chronicles, #1).  I will leave it to the Dark One to decide how these ebooks will be awarded! Thanks and happy reading and writing, my friends!

Dark Lord Journal note: We dearly appreciate Rennie’s generous offer of a pair of ARCs.  We’d be honored to award them to two of the first six people to post, chosen at random.  (Because we’ve got a six-sided die next to our collection of poisons over here…

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Find out more about Rennie St. James at www.writerrsj.com.  Rennie St. James shares several similarities with her fictional characters (heroes and villains alike) including a love of chocolate, horror movies, martial arts, yoga, and travel. She doesn’t have a pet mountain lion but is proudly owned by three rescue kitties, and they live in relative harmony in beautiful southwestern Virginia.  Rennie plans to release the Rahki Chronicles in 2018, but new books are always in progress.

The Gray Light of Villainy 101

The Gray Light of Villainy 101 – Relationships

A guest post by Rennie St. James

Before we can delve into the gray light of villainy, we must first touch upon the definition for villain. Below are just a few:

-a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.

-a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.

-a dramatic or fictional character who is typically at odds with the hero

Any good villain can easily find several gray areas in all of these definitions. Perhaps, we can find more clarity in the definition of a hero then.

-a main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength.

-a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.

Well, that makes it as clear as mud, doesn’t it?! I like to think of heroes and villains as two sides of the same coin. However, we treat them quite differently when writing. We shine a bright light of love onto our heroes while bathing our villains in darkness. There are many avenues to right this wrong, and this particular post will focus on villainous relationships.

One of the best ways to make our MCs more likable is to use their relationships with other characters. The surprising bromance and tender spot for animals are classic examples which give our heroes depth. The hooker with a heart of gold and bad boy with a secret charity abound in romances. No man is an island after all…and neither is a villain.

Now, every good villain has an army of underlings at their disposal. It’s often the case that the villain has a twisted past with the hero as well. However, those relationships only serve to reinforce their dastardly natures. What makes the villain more complex are their more personable relationships.

Hannibal Lector and Clarice is perhaps a well-known relationship that serves to define him in a new light. For the Potterheads like me, there’s Snape and Lily. It wasn’t Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore, Harry, or Voldemort that created a complex character; it was the underlying love hidden under the snark and darkness. Always.

To paraphrase one of my favorite writing quotes – write each character as if they are the hero of their own story.

In my fantasy series, I have a number of dastardly villains ranging from political snakes to terrorist masterminds. How do you write these characters as heroes even if only in their own minds?

I write first person POV character pieces for each. My pieces are typically something short that details a turning point in his/ her past. And yes, it helps if a good relationship is explored in a new way. These stories never have to be revealed in the book. Nonetheless, they will still impact the way the villain is written. They can make the villain even more human than the hero.

Heroes often exist outside of our skill set and standards. They are far beyond what most of us can hope to accomplish in our normal lives. Must the villain’s evil nature be far beyond our reach as well?

Writers are often encouraged to give our heroes flaws, but what about giving our villains any good traits? I think should remember that it’s perfectly acceptable for villains to do somewhat good things at times or even bad things for a good reason. Those bright spots in our villains’ lives contrast nicely with the shadows of death, destruction, and mayhem constantly cloaking them. They also create more of those lovely gray areas.

It isn’t just about the villain’s relationships with other characters, but also their relationship with the reader. While the hero’s goodness may be beyond most of us, the villain’s flaws and relative goodness are things we can appreciate and understand. Forming a connection to a villain makes it easier for us to cheer for them even if they are breaking the law or set against the ‘good guy’. Frankenstein? Loki? The Inside Man? The A-Team?

There are countless examples of villainous characters making questionable choices that we overlook or even relish. Sometimes, it’s just a spitefulness inside us that celebrates their vindictive natures to punish those who have wronged them (as we would like to do). Sometimes, it’s that the villain seems infinitely more likable to us.

To again reference HP, no one is all good or all bad. Each of us have light and darkness inside. Relationships are one way to spotlight the white light of goodness in a villain. On the flip side, relationships can also reveal the darkness in a hero. These contrasts and gray areas can make all the characters deeper and more human.

Again, heroes and villains are simply different sides of the same coin. Take a moment and review your villain in a new light and see what happens. Are there gray areas in which your villain shines? Do they have a strong bond to a good character? Is there an underlying good reason for their choices that readers can understand? Maybe you already have a favorite villain you cheer for in your writing? I’d love to hear about him/ her so please share in the comments.

 


Find out more about Rennie St. James at www.writerrsj.com.  Rennie St. James shares several similarities with her fictional characters (heroes and villains alike) including a love of chocolate, horror movies, martial arts, yoga, and travel. She doesn’t have a pet mountain lion but is proudly owned by three rescue kitties, and they live in relative harmony in beautiful southwestern Virginia.  Rennie plans to release the Rahki Chronicles in 2018, but new books are always in progress.